The Dark and Other Love Stories
Right now there is no shortage of smart and provocative short story collections by talented female writers. But that doesn’t mean readers should allow themselves to grow fatigued with the genre and miss the best ones. Case in point: THE DARK AND OTHER LOVE STORIES by Deborah Willis. Passing up on this slender but meaty volume would mean missing out on Willis’ brand of strange and often sensual realism and her thoughtful exploration of the diversity of love.
The 13 stories here are varied in plot and character types, but all circle around shared central themes. The love the characters find is platonic or sexual, romantic or familial, even interspecies, but it challenges them to think outside themselves, feel more deeply, assert their identity, and behold the world in new and meaningful ways.
"Willis’ prose is sharp and at times beautiful as she describes the mundane and the sorrowful, gifting readers with finely drawn characters and hauntingly poignant tales."
The titular story finds two girls who meet at summer camp testing boundaries, physical and emotional. Andrea and narrator Jess sneak out of their cabin at night to play in the woods, visit the camp horses in the field and skinny dip in the lake. The danger is real but minor until they meet two young men in a rowboat one night and are caught in the water, far from their clothes and far from the camp staff who would protect them. Andrea decides to get out of the water and into the boat with them, but Jess swims toward the shore alone. The girls never discuss what happened to Andrea that night when she left with the men, and the girls’ friendship wasn’t even really damaged. But the incident is one that continues to come to mind for Jess, in moments she spends with the man with whom she is having an affair.
Parental love and responsibility, or the lack thereof, are the focus of “I am Optimus Prime” and “Todd.” In both, young fathers, having struggled with addiction, try to be in the lives of their children with less than successful results. In “Todd,” Eddie wakes up hungover to find that a crow has come to live in his newly rented house. Right away, the wary look in the bird’s light eye reminds him of his daughter, Abby. Eddie’s relationship with the bird, who he names Todd, and his relationship with his daughter are both fraught with peril --- the possibility of loss, the aching emotional closeness, the fragility of the situation. Eddie hopes that his daughter will come to live with him soon, yet they barely know each other even though their love for each other is apparent. But when Todd’s ministrations and caring affections for Eddie prove overwhelming, his reaction is swift and devastating.
“The Passage Bird” also employs birds, both in freedom and captivity, as metaphors for human relationships and emotions. Shiri’s parents, Holocaust survivors living in Canada, have done their best to create a safe home for Shiri and her brother, Dann. But her father’s friend, known to her as the Hawk Man, introduces an element of wild danger that she finds irresistible.
One of the more interesting stories here, and one that uses a bittersweet humor not found in most of the other tales, is “Girlfriend on Mars.” In it, Amber Kivinen, “drug dealer, lapsed Evangelical Christian” and longtime girlfriend to the narrator, Kevin, is a reality show contestant hoping to be sent to Mars. Amber’s ambitions clash with Kevin’s lack of ambitions, and the reader soon realizes that Amber is far more than Kevin admits that she is. Kevin’s imagination runs wild as he sits, stoned, on the couch day after day and as Amber pursues her dream seeing the Earth from above. Their disconnect is sad and funny at the same time.
Willis’ prose is sharp and at times beautiful as she describes the mundane and the sorrowful, gifting readers with finely drawn characters and hauntingly poignant tales. Unafraid to experiment with a bit of postmodern fantasy, even as she describes love in the real world, Willis keeps readers on their toes. Ambitiously unpacking nothing less than the meaning and power of love, THE DARK AND OTHER LOVE STORIES is a fantastic book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 17, 2017